Introduction to Epiphytes: What They Are & How to Care for Them
Ever wonder how some of your favorite houseplants grow naturally in the wild? If you’re a houseplant collector, there is a high probability that many specimens in your collection are epiphytic! Read along as we explore the fascinating world of epiphytes and how you can mimic their natural environments in your home.
The word epiphyte comes from the Greek words “epi” meaning “upon” and “phyton” meaning “plant.” Epiphytes are non-parasitic organisms that grow on other trees and plants, absorbing rain water and moisture from the air while obtaining nutrients from other plant debris.
Though you may not be familiar with the word itself, there is a good chance you already own one! A wide range of popular houseplants such as ferns, orchids, aroids, Hoya, Bromeliads, and Tillandsia are all examples of epiphytes. While many true epiphytes are leafy tropical plants, various forms of cacti can also be epiphytic, such as Rhipsalis, Disocactus, and Hylocereus. Unlike their desert relatives, these epiphytic jungle cacti typically do not have spines, nor do they thrive under desert conditions. In fact, epiphytic jungle cacti can receive over 100 inches of rainfall annually in their natural environment.
Rhipsalis growing in dried Cholla Cactus skeletons, an Oasis in the Desert. These cacti are epiphytic, tropical plants from Central and South America.
Parasite Vs Epiphyte
Many species of plants evolved as epiphytes due to the competition for sunlight in dense jungles and forests. Tall trees block out most of the available light, but these piggybacking plants made homes in the high branches of trees as a way to reach streams of sunlight that they weren’t getting on the forest floor.
Epiphytes are commonly mistaken for parasites, as they both live on a host plant. However, the crucial difference between a parasite and an epiphyte is that epiphytes do not extract any nutrients from the tree itself, causing the host plant no harm. In fact, many epiphytes grow roots downward into the forest floor from a tree's branches or start from the jungle floor and grow up tall trees. Plants that root into the ground and vine up a tree are called hemiepiphytic, such as Monstera deliciosa and Philodendron ‘Micans’.
How Epiphytes Grow In Situ
You may be wondering where epiphytes get their nutrients if not from their host, and the answer is simply from the environment around them! Epiphytes act as treebound recycling bins, taking in debris, animal droppings, and leached water. For example, Asplenium mainly obtain their nutrients from leached water and decaying matter falling into their nest-shaped leaves, while Tillandsia get their nutrients from dust and debris that gets caught in their trichomes.
Tillandsia are distinctive from many other epiphytic houseplants due to their unique ability to live without the need for any substrate. Though they often have visible roots when sold in stores, they don’t typically use them as their primary source of water intake. Instead, they can absorb water through the trichomes on their leaves, which is why we recommend soaking them in water once a week when kept as a houseplant. Check out our Tillandsia blog for nuanced information about these epiphytes.
Bromeliads, close relatives of air plants, have evolved to obtain as much water as possible, some absorbing it from trichomes on the plant’s surface, and others through an air-tight trunk in the center of the plant.
Neoregelia bromeliads growing on a tree in the wild.
Many epiphytic orchids have succulent leaves as well as round, thick bulbs toward the base of their stems. These are called pseudobulbs, which act as backup water storage for orchids during times of drought.
Epiphytes also have rather unique root systems. Epiphytic roots are a special type of aerial root with the goal to secure the plant to a host. Some epiphytic root systems, such as most orchid roots, consist of a spongy material that excels at capturing moisture from the air. Epiphytes can’t afford to be too picky about where or how they get their water, which is why so many have evolved new ways to absorb water from the air around them at any time.
An epiphytic wall display, featuring Hoya, Dischidia, orchids, Tillandsia, Rhipsalis, Lepismium, and more. Other epiphytes frame the display, including Philodendron erubescens, Aeschynanthus sp., Anthurium veitchii, Epiphyllum oxypetalum, and Macleania insignis.
How To Grow Epiphytes as Houseplants
One of the many great things about epiphytes is their ability to thrive in different living arrangements. They can live happily in pots or mounted in a variety of ways. One popular way to mount epiphytic plants is onto pieces of cork. Cork is not only durable and water resistant, but it also visually and texturally mimics the natural environment of epiphytes. Cedar board and burlap mounting are other fun and creative ways to mount epiphytes.
Our cork mount display, featuring Scindapsus pictus, Philodendron hederaceum, Platycerium grande, Hoya 'Krimson Queen,' Lepismium cruciforme, Rhipsalis sp., Dischidia ruscifolia 'Variegata,' and others.
When growing epiphytes in pots, the best substrate options are aroid soil mix, orchid bark, sphagnum moss, or a combination of all three. Orchid bark keeps the substrate airy and light, which is incredibly important for the health of epiphytic root systems. Sphagnum moss locks in moisture while providing airflow for the plant. As for the pots themselves, a simple terracotta pot goes a long way! The terracotta is porous, making it great for airflow and absorbing excess moisture.
Basic Epiphyte Care
Epiphytes grow in a variety of light conditions, from direct sunlight to heavy shade. A safe bet for growing epiphytic plants is bright, indirect light. Read about your specific species to learn about its light preference.
These plants store water in their leaf tissue, so if you ever see your epiphyte deflating, puckered, or wilted and you haven't watered in the last few days, it's time to water! Most epiphytes appreciate water a day or two before the substrate is completely dry. Stick your finger into the soil or moss around your plant to check its moisture level.
When watering, use room-temperature water to fully saturate the substrate. For mounted specimens, soak the root ball in a basin of water or put the plant in the shower for 3-5 minutes.
This is the most important part of epiphyte culture! Your substrate (soil, bark, perlite, or moss) must be airy. These plants are susceptible to root rot if the soil is too compact or dense. Tight soil mixes like All Purpose Soil Blends suffocate epiphytic plants that are used to growing in humid, airy environments in the treetops. Use soil blends like Orchid Mix, Aroid Mix, Sphagnum Moss, or even normal houseplant soil amended with lots of perlite or orchid bark. These mixes balance moisture and airflow to keep your epiphytic plants growing strong.
Our Favorite Epiphytes
Platycerium bifurcatum (Staghorn Fern) - Known for its famous antler-like fronds, this unique and easy-care fern makes a statement both in a pot or on your wall!
Platycerium species can grow HUGE under the right conditions. But in the home, they tend to stay more manageable in size.
Pseudorhipsalis amazonica ‘Blue Flame’ - This exceptional jungle cacti is loved for its bright, otherworldly flowers. Blooming from late spring to early summer, these fascinating blue and purple blooms line the edges of the Pseudorhipsalis amazonica.
Asplenium ‘Austral Gem’ - This fabulous fern offers the best of both worlds. It sports the delicate look of a maidenhair fern, with foliage that is hardier than most in its genus. Each frond is lined with leaflets, creating a full and beautiful appearance.
Anthurium veitchii - Also known as “King Anthurium,” this larger-than-life tree-dweller produces deep green, corrugated foliage.
Tillandsia xerographica - Commonly called an air plants, this Tillandsia is the our favorite of the amazing genus. Huge, pale, curling leaves growing in a rosette make for a beautiful statement piece.
Dendrobium prenticei (Australian Stonecrop Orchid) - This mounted mini orchid offers adorable ovate succulent leaves and delicate pale pink blooms, bringing a gorgeous and miniature piece of the jungle into your home!
Billbergia ‘Hallelujah’ - These colorful Bromeliads boast mottled, rich purple and white leaves, making them a gorgeous option for a tablemount centerpiece or wall accent.
Epiphyllum anguliger - Commonly known as the Fishbone Cactus, these funky epiphytes look straight out of a contemporary art piece! The succulent foliage grows into perfect zig zags that produce stunning flowers around late summer to early fall.
Hoya linearis - This unique vining epiphyte is perfect for hanging baskets and floating shelves with thin, pale green cascading foliage and lemon-scented blooms.
Hoya obovata - Another Hoya favorite, H. obovata sports large, rounded foliage with light speckling and beautiful, fragrant blooms.
Monstera adansonii - A classic for any houseplant collector, this stunning aroid is known for its oval-shaped fenestrations. These plants love to climb, and when provided with a moss or coco coir pole their foliage can reach its full potential in size.
This is a very short list compared to all the epiphytic plants we grow. What is your favorite epiphyte? Any other tips to share? Leave a comment below!